There’s this thing that Oprah says… she says God starts by throwing a pebble at you and then the rocks get bigger and bigger until he throws a brick at your head. Or something. Basically, if you were just paying attention from the beginning, the universe would have told you something without having to knock you over. Being knocked over sucks.
I’ve taken a lot of cues from Oprah over the years – the biggest being my enthusiasm for yelling out random words a la Liz Lemon – and I do my best to catch the pebble on the first try. That’s my goal anyway. I believe that when something you’re attempting is ridiculously hard and feels like your trying to break through a steel wall with a plastic fork, maybe it isn’t the right path… maybe if you look to your left there might be a grassy field, with a paved road, and giant neon arrows with words underneath them that blink “COME THIS WAY.” It’s amazing how you didn’t see all of that from the beginning…
I also believe that sometimes life puts people or opportunities right in the middle of your path for a specific reason. Sometimes it’s to learn something, sometimes it’s to learn something that you’ll use 50 years from now. Sometimes it’s to get you to slow down and take a minute to be quiet for once. And sometimes you miss them completely, they whiz past your head and they’re lost to time and space. But, I’m in the business of trying to catch pebbles, so I do my best.
On my first flight back from Michigan it was snowing. It was snowing on my second flight too, but that didn’t matter as much. On my first flight it was snowing and I was on a tiny tiny airplane. All I could think about was getting home. I was exhausted and looking forward to zenning out, watching the evening turn to night from my window seat and having a quiet moment before running through the Detroit airport to catch my next flight. All my energy was spent on making sure the plane flew steady and straight to Detroit. I had no other mental energy left for anything else. But then Melvin, a tall 58 year old hardware IT guy from tiny-town Wisconsin, plopped down next to me and immediately began sweating… as you do when you’re Melvin. He said hello to me and from that moment forth never stopped talking.
Before we even took off I had already learned that Melvin was in town for a training, a training he did not pass because he made it more complicated than it should have been… but gosh darnit he did, in fact, learn something. He used to work for HP but now works for a company I’ve never heard of, where they treat all of their employees like people instead of a serial number. He has two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both 2 years old, born three days apart. One is his daughter’s kid, the other is his son’s. One of them they call GeGe, and the other one I don’t remember.
Now, during all of this time I was doing my best to act as uninterested as possible – because I was. I was also hoping that every pause Melvin took to breath was actually the point where he would stop talking for the rest of the trip. This was never the case. I looked out the window I did my best non-committal “mmhm” and “oh, nice.” I did every social cue except physically turn my back on the man. And I kept thinking, whhhhyyy? Why is this man sitting next to me? Of all people? Gah.
And then he told me that his dad had died on Christmas eve in a car accident when Melvin was 10, leaving his mother alone with 6 kids from age 1 to 11. It turns out that my mother’s father died on December 20th, his funeral on Christmas Eve when I was 5. So I know how death changes the holidays, and my ears perked up. Maybe this man had a story worth hearing, maybe I needed to be a little more patient. Melvin said that for a year after his father’s death, he still expected him to walk through the door and say, “Got ya!”
He told me how being a grandfather was the best thing ever because he got to really appreciate his grandkids as babies. When his own kids were that age he couldn’t truly appreciate it because he was too busy working, focused on his own crap, and being a dumbass. He told me how he went to rehab when he was 29 for alcohol and coke and how a 17 year old kid shot himself and died while he was there. He told me about another guy who huffed propane and how after he was done with rehab, overdosed on the stuff and died. He told me how he’s been with his wife for 30 years, how is mom remarried when he was 17 and how he had inherited his step-father’s tractor. The tractor, he said, was just as temperamental as his stepfather used to be and Melvin got a big kick out of that. He told me about how is mother had died of cancer last year, but not before being able to hold her two great-grandchildren and attend 3 of her grandchildrens’ weddings. He told me how incredibly happy he was, how fabulous his life had turned out, and how grateful he was for it all.
When I finally stopped willing him to shut up and started actually listening to what he was saying, Melvin taught me that 1 person can go through a hell of a lot of shit and come out the other end intact. He taught me that life is long and life is short. You have time to do the things you want with life, so slow down and enjoy it. But don’t waste it focused on stupid shit that doesn’t matter. He taught me that life has stages and that I don’t have to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do before I’m 30. Melvin showed me that bad things can happen, you can have bad decades and make really stupid mistakes and go through really terrible things, but that in the end life is pretty great.
There was no time for a pebble to grow into a brick. I spent a maximum 90 minutes in that plane with Melvin and I don’t think I’ll ever forget some of the things he said. He can’t wait to take his grandkids fishing. His son lives just a ways away from a lake… it doesn’t have much fish in it, but there are some things about nature you just can’t learn from a TV. And Melvin is hell bent on showing them a thing or two.